Drinking coffee elsewhere
ZZ Packer

Author: Packer, ZZ

Presents a collection of eight short stories that touch on the subject of race and race relations.

New York: Riverhead Books, 2003, 238 p.

Booklist Review: Packer’s debut collection of short stories is full of challenges to its youthful, predominantly African American cast of characters. Often they have everything all figured out when a “Challenging Person” comes barging in, such as in the book’s title story, in which Dina and her ramen noodles are walled up in self-imposed dorm room exile until moon-faced Heidi from Vancouver demands her company and, perhaps, her heart. In another, God himself--speaking through an amputee blues musician once known as Delta Sweetmeat--infiltrates the already supposedly holier-than-thou life of Sister Clareese. Sometimes, the challenge is from a hopeful situation turned frustrating and desperate: a group of once-idealistic expatriates starving in a one-room apartment in Japan, for example, or a young city schoolteacher snapping on her drive home. These challenges don't tend to have happy endings, but they are learning experiences for the characters and moving reading for us. Packer’s prose suggests university writing-workshop fiction at its insightful best, full of youthful angst and irreverence, yet polished, professional, and captivating.
(Reviewed February 15, 2003) -- Brendan Driscoll

School Library Journal Review: Adult/High School–The characters in these stories are mainly African American, but that is where their similarity ends. From the young Brownie troop member in the opening tale to the teen in the pre-civil rights South closing story, each one has a unique voice. The strong role of the church is evident, but the characters range from the very religious to the very doubtful. Sexuality is problematic–from the older virgin who is more interested in preaching the gospel to the 14-year-old virgin runaway who has also been preaching the gospel but can't help continuing a dalliance with a man she suspects may be a pimp and a drug dealer. The settings are Baltimore, Washington during the Million Man March, and, in a particularly bleak story, Japan. Each selection is strong, but "Brownies" may be the strongest. It's full of dark humor and unseen plot twists, reminiscent in tone of a Flannery O' Connor tale. All of the selections appeared previously in various literary magazines. Older teens will find much to enjoy in this collection. For those studying the short story as a literary format, it would make an excellent companion to more classic tales.–Jamie Watson, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore (Reviewed September 1, 2003) (School Library Journal, vol 49, issue 9, p241)

Publishers Weekly Review: /* Starred Review */ The clear-voiced humanity of Packer's characters, mostly black teenage girls, resonates unforgettably through the eight stories of this accomplished debut collection. Several tales are set in black communities in the South and explore the identity crises of God-fearing, economically disenfranchised teens and young women. In the riveting "Speaking in Tongues," 14-year-old "church girl" Tia runs away from her overly strict aunt in rural Georgia in search of the mother she hasn't seen in years. She makes it to Atlanta, where, in her long ruffled skirt and obvious desperation, she seems an easy target for a smooth-talking pimp. The title story explores a Yale freshman's wrenching alienation as a black student who, in trying to cope with her new, radically unfamiliar surroundings and the death of her mother, isolates herself completely until another misfit, a white student, comes into her orbit. Other stories feature a young man's last-ditch effort to understand his unreliable father on a trip to the Million Man March and a young woman who sets off for Tokyo to make "a pile of money" and finds herself destitute, living in a house full of other unemployed gaijin. These stories never end neatly or easily. Packer knows how to keep the tone provocative and tense at the close of each tale, doing justice to the complexity and dignity of the characters and their difficult choices. (Mar. 10)
— Staff (Reviewed December 16, 2002) (Publishers Weekly, vol 249, issue 50, p43)

Library Journal Review: /* Starred Review */ Though they rarely appear on best sellers lists, short story collections can be the ultimate in fiction—the freshest voices, the most distilled prose, the most exciting trends. Newcomer Packer's debut is that kind of collection. Lauded by The New Yorker in its 2000 "Debut Fiction" issue and published in other magazines since, she fills her first book with some distinctive entries. In "Geese," a young black woman from Baltimore upends her life to seek her fortune in Japan but ends up living in a tiny apartment with a number of bitter, unemployed foreigners. In "Our Lady of Peace," a new college graduate signs up for an accelerated teacher certification program but self-destructs in the hard neighborhood in which she finds herself. In "Doris Is Coming," a young woman from a fundamentalist family yearns to join the lunch counter sit-ins in 1961 and visits the Lithuanian appliance store owner to watch television when she wants to escape from her family. Bright, sharp, promising, and recommended.—Ann H. Fisher, Radford P.L., VA (Reviewed January 15, 2003) (Library Journal, vol 128, issue 1, p162)

Kirkus Reviews /* Starred Review */ Race is less subject than context in these eight finely crafted tales, all consistently challenging readers' basic assumptions.

Like many of Packer's characters, Dina, in the title story (previously published in the New Yorker's Debut Fiction issue in summer 2000), is a studious loner whose disdain toward her fellow students, black and white, covers years of angry hurt. The Yale freshman begins a friendship with a white girl but can't follow through. Dina appears again in "Geese," living in Japan with a multinational group of down-and-outers and discovering how far down she'll go to survive. These are not cheerful tales. In the marvelous opener, "Brownies," a Brownie troop plots to beat up a white troop at their camp over a suspected racial offense; but the white girls turn out to be retarded innocents. Packer frequently uses the black church as background; in "Every Tongue Shall Confess," religious and romantic longings get tangled together for a lonely, devout nurse. Tia, in "Speaking in Tongues," runs away from her aunt's devout but stable home to find her crack addict mother in Atlanta. In "Our Lady of Peace," an educated young woman leaves her mostly white hometown in Kentucky to become a high-school teacher in Baltimore, where she's defeated by her unreachable students and her own naivetÉ. "The Ant of the Self" offers the collection's only male protagonist, a studious high-school debater in Louisville who finds himself driving his dead-beat dad to the Million Man March, where his father, ignoring the spirit of the event, abandons him. The last story, set in 1961, deals directly with race as the subject. The eponymous heroine of "Doris Is Coming" tries to understand the Civil Rights Movement within the framework of her small but complex world. When she enacts a one-person sit-in at a local lunch counter, the waitress says she can't officially serve her but offers Doris her own unfinished milk shake instead.

Highly personal yet socio-politically acute: a debut collection that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting wallop.
(Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2002)

Other related features:

1. Awards (Best Fiction) - Adult -> Best Fiction -> Literary -> ALA Notable Books -> 2004

2. Awards (Best Fiction) - Adult -> Best Fiction -> Literary -> New York Times Notable Books -> Fiction and Poetry -> 2003

3. Awards (Best Fiction) - Young Adult -> Best Fiction -> Literary -> Alex Award -> 2004

ISBNs Associated with this Title:
1565117581 : Cassette - Audio
1417676019 : Glued Binding
156511759X : CD - Audio
1573222623 : Hardcover
1573223786 : Paperback

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